Have you ever encountered a story so compelling that you sought it out again and again and again, each time feeling just as deeply touched as the first? Hollywood excels at recognizing a story of great conviction when they see one, and they’ve made no exceptions for A Star Is Born. The movie has been made four times since the 1930s, a timeless tale of addiction and fame and heartbreak that has remained relevant through decades of societal evolution. Controversy has always surrounded fame and addiction, but has that controversy always been handled the same way? If you’re interested in traveling through the years and exploring this question with me, keep on reading below.
A Star Is Born first hit the big screen in 1937, starring Janet Gaynor as Esther Victoria Blodgett and Fredric March as Norman Maine. In this original make, Blodgett is an aspiring actress who makes it in the industry after meeting Maine, an actor who happens to be her idol. Maine’s career declines as a result of his alcoholism while Blodgett’s takes off. After being arrested for drunk driving, Maine promises to stop drinking but ultimately drowns himself in the ocean after learning that his drunken behavior has ruined Blodgett’s career. Just five years past the age of prohibition, a movie like this has the potential to push a severe moral agenda. However, the movie was widely accepted, one critic from Harrison’s Reports calling it “a powerful human interest drama.” A potential contributing factor to this positive reception is the rumor of the story being inspired by a few different people at the time who suffered from alcoholism and other mental illness, and one who committed suicide by drowning.
The movie was remade in 1954 and cast Judy Garland as Esther Blodgett and James Mason as Norman Maine. Character names aren’t the only new things in this remake; Garland plays an aspiring singer who meets a famous actor at the beginning of his career decline, and she ultimately begins acting and lands an impressive musical while her husband, Maine, loses work altogether. Despite these plot differences, Maine’s drunk driving arrest and suicide at the end of the movie remain in this version. While the 1954 remake didn’t get as high of a rating on Rotten Tomatoes as the original, it was widely accepted and highly praised. The New York Times reporter Bosley Crowther wrote that it was “one of the grandest heartbreak dramas that has drenched the screen in years.” No formal criticism was made regarding the addiction and suicide themes when the film could have been an advantageous outlet for starting a conversation about mental health.
The second remake, in 1976, stars Barbra Streisand as Esther Hoffman and Kris Kristofferson as John Norman Howard. Just as the character’s names have changed again in this remake, this version of A Star Is Born is the first to show Howard as a drunk rockstar who cheats on his wife and is killed from reckless driving. Perhaps from the large deviation from the film’s original plot, this remake was poorly rated and received with disappointment and sarcasm. Some criticism was directed toward Kristofferson’s attitude throughout the film, while more general remarks called the film “an unmitigated disaster,” suggesting an over-arching displeasure in the construction of the previously successful story. Several theories could be explored as to why this film performed so poorly in contrast to the first two makes, but the theory I wonder about has to do with what the film chose to cut out. Howard deals with alcoholism but his death comes as an accident instead of at his own hands, muting the evidence of what the disease can push a person to do. One of the most tragic aspects of the story is watching our main man spiral into the worst parts of himself, and when his death is an accident, it doesn’t ring as powerful. Perhaps viewers felt that Howard’s disease was disrespectfully downplayed by morphing a suicide into the accident.
The story was relevant enough to be told a fourth time, which is when we jump to the present. Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper co-star in the 2018 remake, where they portray Ally and Jackson Maine. This third remake remains consistent in portraying alcoholism as a catalyst for Jack’s decline and goes back to the original storyline of Maine ending his own life after discovering he has ruined his wife’s career, though instead of drowning in the ocean he hangs himself with a belt in his garage. Ally supports Jack through every instance of drunken embarrassment and painful withdrawal, repeatedly saying, “It’s okay, it’s a disease, it’s not you.” In a society where alcoholism is often either widely ridiculed or widely romanticized, it’s so powerful to see it portrayed as a disease.
I was surprised to find out that each film handles these controversial topics in a relatively sensitive way despite the time period shifts, which is a refreshing find when we live in a world of diseases that aren’t taken seriously. Mental health awareness has soared since the last make of the film, and hopefully viewers are finally ready to engage in the conversation.